Re-envisioning utopian thinking

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by Stevphen Shukaitis

2012 preface: this essay was written in 2003 as a response to concerns coming out of the anti-globalization movement. Movement activists were confronted, much in the same way those involved in the Occupy movements are today, with a demand to move on from a protest against something to articulating alternative social arrangements. “Yes, I understand what you’re against, but what are you for? What’s your vision of how things should work?” Most often this demand was used in attempts to argue against the protest movements, either by claiming that they had no alternative vision or that this vision was unworkable or impractical. For that reason many rejected the very idea of articulating alternative social or economic frameworks. I would argue that this is a mistake. This essay was written to argue for developing alternative economic frameworks, utopian ones in fact, but coming from the grounded experiencing of already existing cooperative practices. The argument then is not to create an abstract blueprint to work from, but rather to find patterns of resonance between existing social practices, and to develop a framework for new social institutions based on further developing those practices. I would argue that this approach, developing utopian thinking grounded in the realities of existing forms of cooperation, is just as valid and important to consider today.

“We have no interest in abilities apart from the revolutionary use that can be made of them, a use which acquires its sense in everyday life . . . Wherever the new proletariat experiments with its liberation, autonomy in revolutionary coherence is the first step toward generalized self-management.”- Raoul Vaneigem, from “To Have as a Goal Practical Truth” (1981: 218)

Face it. On the whole we have not articulated any sort of coherent alternative vision of what a society not based on capitalism and the state might look like. We have produced copious amounts of political, economic, and social critiques – but a comparatively smaller amount of work has focused on developing alternatives to what we’re critiquing. Least of all has there been any clearly sketched out version of how a liberatory economy might function. This is not to say there has not been thought or work put into these subjects, which there clearly has been. But when faced with the question “I understand what you’re against, what are you for?” far too often radical activists and organizers on the whole are stymied; at best we end up mumbling something about a world of autonomous or semiautonomous communities based upon mutual aid, self-organization, and voluntary association. And those are all very well and good, and could form the basis of a liberatory society – but for many people such statements mean virtually nothing. It’s one thing to say that we want a world where people manage their own lives, the environment isn’t destroyed, and life is not desolate and alienating – but it’s another to start talking about what such a vision might actually look like. And starting to actually create forms of cooperative practice, to re-envision utopian thinking as lived reality, is another.

It is a common observation among radicals that the order of the world easily becomes naturalized, normalized, and reified. Why do things work the way they do? Because that’s how they operate. Perhaps the most striking way to examine how this phenomena works is by trying to imagine alternatives, or even to imagine how previously existing social orders (such as Bronze age Greece or the classical Greek and Roman eras) operated. Chances are what you’ll find is that most people have a relatively easy time imagining what a different political order might look like, how different religions might work, and perhaps even how a family might be structured differently. But chances are they will find it difficult to imagine how a different economic arrangement or society not based around the state would work. Try it a few times. Ask someone how an economy would run if not based on private ownership. Ask them to describe economic relations in Greece. Ask them how society would operate without a state. Chances are they will find it very difficult to describe, which is odd considering that for thousands of years of human history there was no state or a market economy. But yet such has become so normalized that thinking outside of such is nearly impossible for many people. Such “stateness” (and “market-ness”) has become so normalized in political theory that it is argued that democracy itself cannot exist without a state. (Linz and Stepan 1996: 7)

Clearly if one wants to seriously put forward the idea of revolutionary social change one has to move conceptions of how such an alternative arrangement might work out of the realm of inconceivable thought and into the realm of possibility. This can help to explain why it is musicians, writers, and artists who have been commonly drawn to radical politics – the flexibility of creativity makes it easier to imagine that alternative social arrangements are possible. The task at hand for those of us who advocate radical social change is making that sort of flexibility and utopian social vision seem like an achievable possibility to the vast majority of the population – and that will happen not through saying or proclaiming that it is so, but through concrete demonstrations that such forms have existed and present a realistic alternative to the current social order. It is this task that Pierre Bourdieu spoke of when he said that, “We need to invent a new utopianism, rooted in contemporary social forces, for which – at risk of seeming to encourage a return to antiquated political visions – it will be necessary to create new kinds of movement.” (2002: 67)

And that is the role of visionary thinking: to seize the creative latitude and inspiration of existing forms of non-hierarchal organizing to create webs of knowledge, skills, and experience that can be constantly redefined according to the needs of situation and time.

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But Why Utopian Vision 

“If you dream alone, it’s just a dream. If you dream together, it’s reality.” – from a Brazilian folk song

To this there will be many objections: Isn’t utopian thinking just a frivolous waste of time better used with pragmatic forms of organizing and action? Isn’t there a danger that one could recreate the same class based structures of power and domination in one’s vision that exist now, as Foucault was fond of constantly objecting with an almost defeatist tone? Isn’t it classist to be engaged in this kind of visionary thinking? These are objections with varying degrees of validity. It would be silly to say that one should be spending time coming up with utopian visions instead of engaging the day to day struggles to alleviate the wretched conditions which face large segments of the world’s population. But it is also equally true that even when there exists a period where revolutionary change becomes possible unless one has some idea of what sort of arrangement one wants to create, it is all the more easy for such situations to recreate the same oppressive structures or become dominated by the most malicious “liberators.” The Russian, Cuban, and Chinese experiences should be sufficient examples of such.

The point here is not that one should have a blueprint for exacting details of a new social order. Such would be silly and more destructive than helpful. But unless one has at least a rough idea of how such an alternative social arrangement might work it would be extremely difficult to convince others that such is desirable or achievable. Marx knew that he was going to fish in the morning and hunt in the afternoon, but other than that the functioning of a post-capitalist society was at best anyone’s guess, at worst the decision of those with the most guns. The question then becomes how one can best approach the task of creating a utopian vision in a way that does not recreate current forms of domination and brings the utopian vision put forth into the realm of possibility in a way that shows avenues for how that order can be brought into existence in the here and now. It is part of trying to sketch out the functioning of what Raoul Vaneigem described as generalized self-management, or when the logic and methods of the worker’s councils could be extended over society as a liberated whole.

The problem is that you can’t study utopia. The study of utopia is the ethnography of nowhere. There is no ready made existing liberatory society which one can go and study, take notes on, and then return and try to recreate here. It is also debatable even if one could find such an existing situation that trying to recreate such out of the context where such emerged would be the best of ideas. The problem of utopian vision is that it doesn’t exist anywhere – that’s implicit in the word. But there have existed a multitude of examples of cooperative structures and non-hierarchal social practices that have existed throughout history. Little slices of liberation and non-alienated experience – what Pierre Clastres describes as the “vast constellation of societies in which the holders of what elsewhere would be called power are actually without power; where the political is determined as a domain beyond coercion and violence, beyond hierarchal subordination.” (1977: 5) And that’s the starting point of reformatting a non-vanguardist approach to the creation of utopian social theory.

The typical approach to considering radical social and economic change is to select a set of values and ends and then try to create some social structures based upon those values. For example, we could say that we want a society based upon solidarity, mutual aid, voluntary association and so forth – so what would social institutions look like based upon those values? One example of this sort of approach is found in the example of Parecon, or participatory economics. Parecon and its founders should be praised for articulating a vision, as at the very least regardless of what you think of their ideas they at least offer up some sort of overall vision which can be looked at and evaluated as to whether or not such would ultimately be desirable and effective. However, I think that when you look at this formulation (and not just Parecon in particular) you can see the flaw in this approach.

The problem is that such an approach to envisioning radical alternatives is that it begins with abstract concepts and ideals as its founding basis, and then proceeds to try to fit life to those ideals. The danger of beginning with abstract values and goals as the basis for trying to plan social reality is that it’s very easy to get caught up in ideological conflicts through such a process, to get involved in conflicts over theoretical systems and interactions that may or may not occur when the new vision hits the pavement of actual existence. Conversely, such a process of going from abstractions can overlook very real pragmatic issues that can be glossed over in abstract models. And perhaps most important is that people don’t act like theoretical constructs – they act like people, whose behavior can never be fully described by any model of any kind. Among the areas which modern economics can be criticized for is that it is very good at creating abstract models of how an economy functions, but such do not describe (and really cannot describe) the actual functioning of the world. Similarly, the radical intellectual or theorist cannot formulate alternatives from a position separated from social struggle and their experiences. From such a position radical social change is itself an abstraction.

Libertarian municipalism, most commonly associated with Murray Bookchin and related theorists, in general takes the position of subsuming the economic sphere as a part of a political critique. Thus the arrangement of economic relations becomes something that will be arrived upon after the newly created directly democratic polity (or the decentralization and further democratization of an existing political structure) decides upon it. This is not to say that the community should not have a role, most likely a large role, in their economic affairs – but visions put forth thus far have used this reasoning more as an excuse for not having a coherent conceptualization of an alternative economic arrangement. The debate between Michael Albert and Peter Staudenmaier is representative of this. (2002)

Another general style of approaching social change might be summed up as doing so through focusing on the methods of achieving this change, such as with syndicalism. Such are often very useful for particular social milieus and arrangements, but often do not correspond to any broader reconstructive vision and are difficult to use applicably beyond the specific circumstance of their formation. For instance, what good does the call to take over the factories mean if you live somewhere where there aren’t any factories? What if you don’t want factories at all? This criticism can be directed at much of the “canon” of anarchist theory, which for the large part is from the 19th to early 20th century European thinkers. Not surprisingly, we live in a much different and more complex world then 1890s Europe – so it would be absurd to think that our notions of social change and strategy for working for such might not need some radical rethinking. Kropotkin, for instance, outlined a number of important principles to consider in radical economic visioning: the integration of manual and mental labor in the organization of production, the importance of space and decentralization in the reduction and elimination of hierarchy, and so on. (1985) Although it makes a great deal of sense to continue to draw ideas and inspiration from such works, it is important to realize that the principles drawn from such need to be reworked to be practically applicable in today’s world.

The alternative approach that I would put forward for creating radical visions would be to look at the existing forms of cooperative economics and social practice that have existed throughout human history and around the planet, and to try to draw out their underlying logic into a more generalized pluralistic vision. Such an approach draws from an ethnographic practice and approach (though trying to dispense with the more noxious forms and tendencies that such has exhibited by the less ethical of researchers). This would not be just a shift in one’s approach, but the beginning notes of what very well could be an extensive and on-going project. Thus instead of asking “how can we run the economy so that it creates solidarity?” or “how can we manage individual interests and communal interests?” the question becomes looking at different existing forms of practice and drawing from them, rather than trying to impose upon them. The role of vision through this becomes not declaring what should be based upon utopian abstraction, but trying to figure out what could be based upon the experiences contained within existing forms of social relations.

Just sit back for a second and list some of the examples of cooperative structures that you can think of: local community gardens, multitudes of cooperative and worker collectives, the Mondragon, time stores and labor exchanges, collective farms from the US to Russia, the Mararikulam cooperatives in India, the Kibbutzim, neighborhood assembleas from Argentina to New England, the ejidos and autonomous communities in Chiapas, gift economies and exchange clubs, free stores, squats, alternative currency systems, cooperative water management in Bali, communes and intentional communities, practices and concepts such as guanxi (China) and the potlatch (Kwakiutl), and so forth. Perhaps the question should not be whether a world based on cooperation and without hierarchy can possibly work, but why the many examples of how such structures haven’t been looked at in terms of creating a more holistic version before?

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The Non-Vanguardist Social Researcher and the Task of Utopian Vision

“Rather than value being the process of public recognition itself, already suspended in social relations, it is the way people could do almost anything (including in the right circumstances, creating entirely new sorts of social relations), assess the importance of what they do, in fact, do, as they are doing it.” – David Graeber, from Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (2001: 47)

The question/task then becomes looking at the different existing forms of cooperative enterprise and social structures and asking how they might fit together into a more general social vision or system. How might the different elements interact? If one applied the logic of the Argentinian neighborhood assemblies to the economic structure of a factory in Prague, what might that look like? How would these different cooperative structures work between communities, between regions, and globally? How would it be possible to best coordinate resources and create forms of cooperation across regions while maintaining the highest possible level of autonomy? How can one start creating these types of structures now in a fashion where they form a sustainable community infrastructure?

This approach has multiple benefits. The first and most obvious is that since you are starting from cooperative structures and practices that have existed, one does not have to argue that such are possible. Clearly they are. They have existed and continue to exist throughout the world. As noted frequently by Chomsky, the prospect of a workable alternative is a greater threat to the system than just opposition. For instance, why was the US government so threatened by the Black Panthers? There are many reasons, but one of the generally least mentioned ones is that through their breakfast programs, community clinics, and other programs the Black Panthers started creating an infrastructure that showed that those communities didn’t need the state to take care of them – they could do it for themselves. The threat of a workable alternative cannot be underestimated. The task of radical vision is not of the “great thinker” or learned sage, but of the ability to listen attentively to the desires and experience of those who struggle for their liberation – and to learn from them. This is the task not an of an elite vanguard, but a role that we all can take part in, as diplomats of struggle, pagans, prophets, and dreamers bringing utopia into our lives every day.

Secondly, from that position it becomes possible to conceive of anarchism not as a philosophy that was invented by a specific set of 18th century patriarchal bearded white guys, but as the struggle and practice for the creation of freedom and liberated experience that has existed throughout human history. As observed in regards to African societies, “To a greater or lesser extent all of these traditional African societies manifest ‘anarchic elements’ which upon close examination lend credence to the historical truism that governments have not always existed. They are but a recent phenomena and are, therefore, not inevitable in human society.” (Mbah and Igariwey 1997: 27) This is not to say that one should go around declaring that Balinese tribes are really anarchists and just don’t know it – but that one can learn from the vast historical experience of the cooperative institutions and practices which have existed. Such grounds utopian theory and hopes not in wild speculations, but in the lived realities of daily experience, in the extension of what people already know to a broader vision.

Utopian theory is not then abstractions and ideals that are designed to be imposed upon the world, dreams that will come into existence after the revolution, but is the collected experience of cooperative structures that can be generalized into a broader vision. This broader vision, however, is not an imperial vision or one that exists in some abstract universal space. It is a utopian theory that is more a process of coordinating, collecting, and connecting the experience and knowledge created through experience in a way that can be adapted and applied in varying situations and contexts in pluralistic fashion. The task of the utopian theorist is that of acting as a diplomat between struggles, sharing wisdom and experiences, connecting and synthesizing ideas created through everyday experience, and offer such back to the community.

This is not to suggest that we can envision radical alternatives in a “value free” or neutral manner, at least not in any fashion resembling such claims usually made by the social sciences. It would be silly and possibly dangerous to pretend that our choice of liberatory social relations to study would not be based upon personal concepts of freedom, solidarity, autonomy, and so forth. The point is to avoid the error of giving precedence on abstract values of pragmatic organizing or of divorcing pragmatic efforts from a larger liberatory vision. The goal becomes to highlight the liberatory nature of existing social relations and practices and to draw from them new ideals and theories: to create liberatory visions not in terms of definitions themselves, but through looking for the causal relationships in such forms of practice.

There are many possible avenues that this type of an approach and project could take. And to emphasize the point, the goal would not be to formulate the “one true and correct plan” for radical social change, but to amass the experience and knowledge of existing projects and cooperative forms – to gather a knowledge base that can be drawn from according to the needs and particulars of the situation and setting. This is the task not of creating a rigid or deterministic blueprint for social change, but developing a toolbox of knowledge and skills that can be utilized and adapted in changing circumstances. These type of conversations and projects are beginning to crop up with greater frequency as that post-action let down leaves many with a sense of wanting to create sustainable forms of resistance, projects which are grounded within our communities and daily lives.

It would be the elaboration and theorization of what James Scott called mētis, or the informal rules and processes that sustain and support community practices and institutions. Scott contrasts this more informal “rule of thumb” knowledge to analytical and rationalistic knowledge that is characteristic of bureaucratic institutions and centrally planned efforts of social reconstruction; he argues that much of the failure of centrally planned and engineered efforts lies in how they fail to incorporate, and most often relegate and deny the validity of the forms of cooperative and informal practices that support the formal social order. (1998: 313-340) The horror and atrocity of such “revolutionary states” emerges when such centrally planed schemes come to be backed by an authoritarian state apparatus willing to implement them by force.

What this gets to is reformulating one’s approach to the task of utopian thinking and vision. The challenge is not to contemplate and brood in some library until one is finally structured with a grand vision of truth and wisdom that will enable the creation of a vision to lead and direct the masses in the radical struggle for freedom. The task of utopian vision is to examine the already existing liberatory practices, structures, and forms which exist and have existed through the course of human history, and to draw from them a broader vision of how particular forms of freedom might be generalized into an overall social vision. The task is to network and connect multiple and divergent struggles and practices in a mutually complementary and beneficial manner. The goal is not to lead the masses, to create a new human nature or state of being, but to identify existing forms of freedom, and to draw out the underlying logic and generalize them into a pluralistic reconstructive vision. It is to reconceptualize utopian thought not as a static end but as a flexible and adaptable process.

Through this process knowledge and vision are created through experience, through the result of human experience and creation. The goal of utopian thinking should not be to come up with impractical schemes of how a future society might work or to formulate plans that preclude them from starting to be created now. When Marx labeled his socialist predecessors as “utopian” that was his objection, that they had plans and dreams which were unobtainable, and therefore to a large degree useless in trying to alleviate the totally unnecessary suffering brought about by capital and the state. While neo-liberals like to pretend that the market is autonomous and self-supporting, working off principles inherent to itself, such conceals the inventory of ideas, practices, and values which underlie it and allow it to adapt to continually changing circumstances. Similarly, the long-term success of building movements against the state, capital, and all forms of oppression, is to create those reserves of knowledge, experience, and ideas that will enable us constantly to redefine the specifics of non-hierarchical organizing based upon the changing circumstances of time and place.

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The struggle for liberation isn’t about creating unrealizable plans or visions, but about bringing ideas about cooperation and non-hierarchical organizing into our daily lives. Utopian thinking becomes looking at forms of liberatory social relations, extending their logic, and beginning to implement such notions and ideals within the way which we live our lives now. We create the space for revolutionary thought and action by creating those spaces where community grows, where our lives and political struggles can be sustained in an ongoing fashion. It is the task of bringing what Durruti called “the new world we carry in our hearts” into existence as a tangible reality, even if only in a piecemeal fashion. The reformulation of utopian thought is not finding a better way to imagine a future revolution, but drawing from human experience in finding ways to live liberation now.

References

Michael Albert and Peter Staudenmaier. “Participatory Economics & Social Ecology,” available at www.social-ecology.org/forums

Pierre Bourdieu and Gunter Grass. “The ‘Progressive’ Restoration: A Franco-German Dialogue,” New Left Review 14 (March-April 2002), 63-77

Pierre Clastres. Society Against the State: The Leader as Servant and the Human Uses of Power Among Indians of the Americas (New York: Urizen Books, 1977)

David Graeber. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York: Palgrave, 2001)

Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1996)

Peter Kropotkin. Fields, Factories, and Workshops Tomorrow. Ed. Colin Ward (London: Free Press, 1985)

Sam Mbah and IE Igariwey. African Anarchism: The History of a Movement (Tuscon, AZ: See Sharp Press, 1997)

James Scott. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998)

Raoul Vaneigem. “Toward Truth as a Practical Goal,” The Situationist International Anthology. Ed/Trans. Ken Knabb (Berkley, CA: 1981), 216-219.

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[Thank you Stevphen for sending this]

The writer is Lecturer in Work & Organization at the University of Essex (UK) and a member of the Autonomedia editorial collective. He is the author of Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Day and an editor of Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization.

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